History is written, and revised often, by the winners, so it is best to keep your own notes
I first heard of the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo in the early 1990s from a luxuriously illustrated article in the American magazine Ms. Her art is called surreal and naive. It is colourful and sometimes looks narcissistic. For many periods of her short life, Kahlo had access to only one subject for her painting. Bed-ridden repeatedly for traction and surgery, and spending her last years in a wheelchair, Kahlo painted herself again and again, as seen in a mirror.
She was married (twice) to muralist Diego Rivera. I have a small book of details from Rivera’s Detroit Industry murals at the Detroit Institute of Arts, souvenir of a visit some years ago. I didn’t need a book in front of me to recall the power of Kahlo’s art. Anyone who has seen it once remembers that three-quarter view, with fierce eyebrows, severe mouth and a crown of heavy braids woven with flowers. They are her interpretations — photos of Kahlo show a softer beauty. She painted herself enthroned and regally dressed in long skirts and a shawl. And she painted herself naked and vulnerable on a hospital bed.
Kahlo and Rivera often lived separately even in their marital home. There was adultery on both sides, bisexual on hers. Their relationship always intrigued me, maybe because I am a writer who lives with a writer. Did his art ever crowd hers out? Did he ever steal her ideas? Did the love between them rob her of artistic energy while it charged his? Or do I have it all backwards?
They were nationalists and Communists, two ideas that overlap more often in reality than in theory.
Some portions of their story are told in Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, part of my birthday loot. The novel sat on my shelves for some months, and recently I snatched it from the jaws of termites. They had eaten jagged holes into the last pages, but I felt I could fill in the gaps from the remaining text, so I dug in. The hero of The Lacuna is Harrison Shepherd, who works for Rivera and Kahlo. Half of the novel tells of his life with the two artists, particularly during the years they sheltered the exiled Trotsky. The second-half follows him to the U.S., where he writes historical novels about the Aztec and Mayan civilisations and falls under the eye of the Committee on Un-American Activities, which demonised any hint of a post-war yearning for economic justice.
Kingsolver reminds us of past depressions and repressions in American society, a lesson for every society. In a crisis, people readily give up their civil liberties, but it is their rulers who declare a crisis. All nations leave lacunae in their stories that allow their rulers to pretend that these are extraordinary times, that the enemy is at the gates. Shepherd relies on his own record to fill in the gaps at a time when truth shifts like sand. Which is to say, at all times.